One of the most intriguing stories ever told is that of the ancient chain of Semicha.
Today it is almost universally accepted among the liberal Jewish community that the chain of Semicha was broken around the fifth century AD and was forever lost. Recent research, however, has uncovered some very remarkable sources of possible intact Semicha.
Semicha is the rabbinical ordination classically transmitted by the laying on of hands. Moses ordained Joshua and the seventy elders through this authority (Num 27:15-23, Num 11: 16-25, Deut. 34: 9). Their successors in turn ordained others. This hands on transmission continued until around the fifth century at which time it is believed to have ceased to exist.
But G-d said Semicha was unto all generations forever. Is G-d not capable of preserving the gift He so graciously bestowed upon his people. Without Semicha there is no succession of the Sanhedrin nor a priesthood. Without the priesthood there is no building of the Temple. Without the Temple to where will Messiah come ? (Rambam said, “If there is one with uninterrupted semicha, you do not require everyone’s agreement”). Jewish people today believe in the absolute transmission of Torah and Mesorah from Rabbineau Moshe to the present day but believe Semicha ceased centuries ago. But if Hashem preserved the Torah why could He not also preserve Semicha? There are at least seven sources of possible Semicha to consider: (1) A Lost Tribe of Israel (Lemba’s) (2) Isaac Ben Luria and Baal Shim Tov (3) Habbani Jews of Yemen (4) Messianic Nasarini’s (5) Remnant in Europe (6) American Jewish community (7) Teacher/student transmission. Today I will give more space to sources one and seven beginning with the first source. (1) A LOST TRIBE OF ISRAEL: THE LEMBA
” I would like to mention that we, the Jewish community are guilty–guilty because we never accepted what the Lemba had always maintained…until [the] genetic proof recently ; that their story was a part of ours. We are guilty because we rejected them. ” (Dr. Rudo Mathiva).
Approximately 2,500 years ago, a group of Jews left Judah settling in Yemen populating a city called Senna. Unfavorable conditions compelled them to journey many miles until settling in and around Zimbabwe. Similar to other Jews during the Diaspora they assimilated local customs and genes from the local gene pool. For centuries these people passed down their tradition to their children and adamantly claimed they were Jewish. Unlike the locals they believed in one God, Shabbot, Kosher dietary laws, circumcision, the lunar calendar, Torah, and many other Jewish customs. They not only claimed to be Jewish and of the Cohanim but they also boasted an unbroken Semicha (both Cohanim and non-Cohanim Lemba claim Semicha). Academia laughed at these black people proclaiming to be Jews. They were in a delusion…or were they they? In 1997 critical research data indicated that a large proportion of contemporary Jewish Cohanim (those claiming ancestry from the priestly line of Aaron the High Priest) share a set of Y chromosomal genetic markers, known as the Cohen Modal Haplotype, which has been oftlinedetermined to have derived from a single common ancestor dating back to the very time in which the Torah recorded Aaron existed. Scientific calculations which were based on the high rate of genetic similarity of today’s Cohanim resulted in the highest “paternity-certainty” rate that has been ever been recorded in population genetics studies. Scientists found that 45 percent of Ashkenazi priests and 56 percent of Sepharic priests have the cohen genetic signature, while in Jewish populations in general the frequency rate is 3 to 5 percent. When they tested the priestly tribe of Lemba they were astonished to discover they had 53 percent! They had unique genetic markers found only in the Jewish communities. Dr. Tudar Parfitt says “It turned out what they are saying about themselves is substantially correct.” Geneticist Trevor Jenkins said the tests turned out to “prove consistent with Lemba oral history.” Science had conclusively proven the Lemba carried the Priestly genes dating back to the time of Aaron and Moses just as they had always proclaimed.
Numerous other historical traditions they proclaimed turned out to be true. The unknown city that the Lemba claimed they journeyed from was discovered (“Journey to the Vanished City”, Dr. Tudor Parfitt). An artifact they claimed they possessed and lost hundreds of years ago was discovered in a an ancient cave. Dr. Mathiva said, “Old maps of the Holy Land have now revealed that there was a place called Lemba way back BCE.” She further stated that the Jewish community was left with a moral dilemma as to their responsibility and future obligations to the Lemba and concluded saying, “Now that we know, can we continue to pretend they do not exist?”
We have an even GREATER dilemma. If their claims of Jewish origin, Cohanim decent , names of lost cities, etc. proved to be true….what about their claim to possess an unbroken line of Semicha!!! They have persistently claimed an unbroken succession of ordination …the Semicha.
Please keep in mind Semicha has alledgedly been conferred on clans of Lemba that were Cohanim as well as those that were not but were nevertheless considered Jewish. Those recieving Semicha are considered Priests although most are born into into the Priesthood as well as recieving Semicha.
Magdel le Roux says the Lemba still has the priesthood to this very day and the priest traditionally passes his teaching and priesthood on to his son in perpetual succession. He reports the priest said to him: “The succession is just from our forefathers right up to this generation and it will just continue like that. You see there is just a house of priesthood like in the Old Testament and this priesthood is not something of imposition of something you do to yourself. It was something bestowed to a particular house by G-d.” (D:A:4; italics mine).Would such a Semicha be halackally acceptable? It may be time for us to reconsider what is halackally acceptable transmission of Semicha when faced with dispersion and hardship. Even Elijah when in exile accepted food from non-kosher unclean birds until such a time he could resume a normal kosher life. Rabbi Yisroel Shklover said a dispersed group distant from the rest of Klal Yisroel before certain halachic Rabbinical rules were declared would be exempt from those rules not having accepted nor heard them.
One thing is for certain…the Lemba and their claims of Semicha are here…and they are not going to just “go away.”
(2) ISAAC BIN LURIA and BAAL SHIM TOV
Isaac Bin Luria (ARI) was a mystic whom many felt was a holy man with divine favor. He claimed the prophet Elijah, who had been his godfather in his babyhood, paid him frequent visits, initiating him into sublime truths. Rabbi Chayim Vital said the ARI increased his piety, asceticism, purity and holiness until he reached a level where Eliyahu HaNavie (Elijah the prophet) would constantly reveal himself to him, speaking to him “mouth to mouth,” teaching him these mysteries. ” According to scripture Elijah was one of two men who had never tasted death. This would not have been a “phantom” but the real Elijah. If this is true then there would be no doubt Semicha continued because the ARI’s line is still presently extent. It has been recorded that Baal Shim Tov received Semicha from Elijah and it was referred to as “Heavenly Semicha” and , of course, his line of Semicha is still with us today. However this is impossible to verify and smacks a bit as being Quixotic but is still an avenue for the mystically minded to explore.
(3) HABBANI JEWS OF YEMEN
There are other communities making claims, some with DNA tests backing their claims, of descent from the lost tribes and keeping Torah the whole time: Jews of kurdistan, gruzia, mountain Jews, and most notably : the Habbani Jews from Yemen as well as other Yemenite Jewish tribes.
It has also been said that they do not necessarily have to even know it as “smicha” because any permission to judge dinei knasot or nefashot would be sufficient. However some of them do claim classical Semicha.
(4) MESSIANIC NASARINI ’S
Another group with claims of being one of the Ten Lost Tribes, the Nasarini’s of Malabar and Kerela, are said to indeed be of Hebrew heritage . (Ref. Dr. Asahel Grants’ ‘The Nestorians or the Lost Tribes of Israel’ ). Variously known as known as Nasranies, Nestorians, Jacobites, or Saint Thomas Christians, they follow a Hebrew-Syriac Christian tradition saturated with many Jewish elements. They are some of the earliest people who joined Christianity in India and also with many Malabar Jews from the pre-Christian Diaspora as well as the post Christian Diaspora (40 AD to the fourth century after which it is claimed Semicha ceased). The Saint Thomas Nasarani ‘s themselves have a consistent tradition that their church was founded by the very early original Nazarene Church, most specifically by Saint Thomas. Many Pharisee’s also converted to Christianity and joined the early Nazarene Church.
The Saint Thomas Nasranies can allegedly trace their ordination succession person by person all the way back to the original Church. I have seen these ancient documents and have spoken with Greek Orthodox scholars who insist these Syrian records are are historically accurate. If this be so then, considering those who already had Semicha when becoming part of the Nasarini, this would be another unbroken chain of ordination going back to Moshe.
Although Rabbi Yisroel Shklover said that under certain circumstances certain groups would be exempt from the halachic Rabbinical rules I am aware that no Orthodox Torah observant Jew would consider such a Semicha as being even close to being halachic but it would be a very interesting research for a messianic observant Jew to explore.
(5) REMNANT IN EUROPE
It is claimed that Semicha survived intact in a remnant of Jewish people in Europe. A small group of Messianic Jews as well as independent orthodox groups claim to have received preserved Semicha from this and other lines. Further research is needed before I can accurately publish the details which I can do at a later date.
Also we must not forget there have been many laymen “balebatim” who have semicha and were officially “ordained” but do not practice as rabbis at all.
(6) AMERICAN JEWISH COMMUNITY
I have uncovered several in the United States that claim an unbroken Chain of Semicha . I will elaborate on that in another article.
(7) TEACHER/STUDENT TRANSMISSIONWe must seriously consider the theorem that in times when persecution prohibited the existence of ordained Rabbi’s that the father automatically became Rabbi of the home and passed his rabbinical blessing to his son (or children) until such time the classical form of Semicha was able to be resumed (after all Rabbi does mean “teacher”). Perhaps we need to reconsider what is halackally acceptable transmission of Semicha when faced with insurmountable persecution and threat of death.
It is possible, no PROBABLE, that in time of unavoidable secrecy and threat of death that Hashem accepted the following as transmission of Semicha : Transmission of Torah from teacher to student (or father to son) consisting of Torah teaching, pronunciation of blessing, and the physical embrace and/or kiss. This would have been an acceptable link in the unbroken chain of Semichut until such a time that the classical Semicha could be resumed by Rambam’s suggestion of all the sages of Israel coming together, unanimously ordaining judges, and then resuming classical Semicha. This is the most practical and pragmatic approach . If , as many believe, there was an unbroken chain of transmission of Torah, there by necessity must be a teacher to transmit it and a student to receive it, and this done in perpetual succession.
Consider the precision that the Torah was preserved in and passed on in times of aggressive prohibition. Consider the intricate , detailed, typologies involved in Pesach observance. Consider the multitude of details in Jewish observances accurately handed down from generation to generation of families forbidden to observe such custom even at the threat of death and extinction. Do you…COULD you…imagine for one single moment that some Jewish family or families failed to pass on something as critical as Semicha? The vast interactive, connecting, branching, web of of Jewish culture has spun a geometric weave of cultural preservation in the metropolitans, prison camps, jungles, and villages throughout the far reaches of the earth. To think the anointed, ethereal substance of Semicha came to an end is to strike the very heart of faith as well as the credibility of human potential. Hashem is much wiser then we could ever imagine and what He has established He has the ability to preserve. There are no DNA tests, no historical discoveries, no law in the land, nor religious body that can prove to be as dependable a source of evidence as the way and word of Hashem. He has preserved the Jewish people, their traditions, and the Cohanim in the brutal face of Dispersion, holocausts, prison, and centuries of exile. Hitler could not burn her traditions, Nazi’s could not imprison them, and exile could not silence her voice. Through the stygian darkness of night by the candles of Shabbot precious oral history and religious traditions were secretly passed down from generation to generation as her persecutors stalked her doors firing their brutal ammunition over her weary head. When the smoke of historical debates have cleared and skeptics reluctantly lift their heads from the fox holes…before them standing undaunted will be proof of Hashem’s perpetual Semicha . . . to all generations forever.
“THEIR ANOINTING shall surely be an EVERLASTING priesthood throughout your generations.” (Ex. 40: 15)
By Dr. Curtis D. Ward